When I was growing up in the evangelical world, we thought of ourselves as a cognitive minority on the margins of North American culture. We were “in the world but not of the world.” One of the choruses that we sang frequently began with the lines: This world is not my home / I’m just a-passing through My treasures are laid up / somewhere beyond the blue.
All of that seems like ancient history these days. For a while, activist evangelicals even referred to themselves as comprising “the Moral Majority,” with a very different chorus to sing: “Shine, Jesus, shine / Fill this land with the Father’s glory.”
The irony right now, however, is that we may soon start singing “This world is not my home” again. Short of the actual return of Christ, there is little reason to be hopeful that Jesus will “fill this land with the Father’s glory” any time soon.
Actually, the shift back toward a sense of cultural marginalization has been occurring rather dramatically in the past few years. I was active in the coalition in the successful 2008 campaign in California to pass “Proposition 8,” a piece of legislation legally defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our joy over that victory, however, was short-lived. The cultural tide has turned against us — and the change has been surprisingly speedy.
The historian George Marsden once observed that for evangelicals in the United States the move from the 19th century to the 20th was something like an immigration experience — albeit not a geographical one. For much of the 19th century the United States felt like “a Christian nation.” But as Darwinian evolutionary theory took hold, and liberal Protestantism came to dominate much of church life and theological education, it began to feel like evangelicals no longer “owned” the culture.
It is not a huge exaggeration to suggest that in the past decade or so we have experienced another spiritual migration. After a few decades of thinking that we might have a chance at having a significant impact on public life, we are now experiencing a heightened sense of vulnerability. And while a continuing “sexual revolution” is an important factor, it isn’t all about sex. Public schools seem increasingly unfriendly to many widespread convictions about the origins of the human race. Christian student groups on university campuses are being denied access to meeting spaces. Evangelical colleges are often in conflict with their accrediting agencies. Christian beliefs are frequently ridiculed in the entertainment media. And more.
While some of us may not always agree with the specific complaints from our fellow evangelicals about mistreatment in the larger culture, it is difficult to avoid sharing in the pessimistic mood in general. Biblical Christianity is increasingly under attack. The hostility toward what we stand for is real.
I have spent the past few decades engaged in considerable writing and speaking about Christian civility. I have drawn inspiration for this topic from a comment I once came across in a book by the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty. Many people these days who have strong convictions, he observed, are not very civil; and many people who are civil don’t have very strong convictions. What we need, Marty said, is convicted civility.
The evangelicalism of my youth was of the strong conviction variety — without much civility. One of the biblical mandates that was pressed upon us was from 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Seldom, however, did the folks quoting that go on to the rest of the verse: “But do this with gentleness and respect.”
We live in times, as evangelicals, when maintaining our convictions is of crucial importance. In earlier days, including the 1940s and 1950s when I was growing up, evangelicals could define certain patterns of “separating from the world.” I was 12 years old before our family purchased our first TV set. We spent much time at church events, youth rallies and Bible conferences. Besides the daily newspaper, the only magazines we regularly received were Christian ones. Theater attendance and dancing were out of the question. Our family and friends diligently avoided any eating establishments where alcohol was served.
My grandchildren live in a very different world. Their Christian family and church life competes with the pervasive influence of social media, the entertainment culture and much more. Friends of theirs at school — kids in their early teens — have “come out.” They sit next to Muslims and Hindus in their classrooms. Their sense of humor draws much from The Simpsons and The Onion.
Yet they — and all of us who hold to evangelical convictions — still endorse beliefs and practices that are seriously out of step with the larger culture these days. Nor are these beliefs and practices easily tolerated by a large portion of our fellow citizens. Increasingly we evangelicals, along with traditional Catholics, Muslims, Mormons and many in the Jewish community, are seen as a problem that has to be solved in public life. We no longer live in a culture where “live and let live” is the prevailing approach to moral and religious pluralism.
How can we respond in a manner that is faithful to the gospel while also manifesting the “gentleness and respect” of the apostolic mandate?
Tolerance, Religious Freedom and Humility
To be sure, it would be nice simply to be tolerated, to be allowed to sustain the patterns of our own communities and institutions in accordance with what we believe are the non-negotiable teachings of the Bible. But toleration is not a very solid foundation for religious freedom. The more basic requirement is justice. But precisely because it is a matter of justice, we need to speak out on behalf of other religious groups — including folks with whom we ourselves may disagree on key points — so that they too might be beneficiaries of a just ordering of our lives as citizens.
Furthermore, this kind of advocacy is best pursued in a spirit of humility. And we evangelicals ought to admit that we have a lot to be humble about. We haven’t always been very nice people in our engagements with public life. Issuing some apologies for our frequent mean-spiritedness in the past might be a good idea. But at the very least our calls to be granted to abide by our own deepest convictions must be accompanied by demonstrations of our commitment to the common good. This is a time for creative thinking — and prayerful reflection — about how we can find new ways of showing that we care deeply about the genuine human needs and concerns of people whose beliefs and lifestyles are very different from our own.
When the ancient people of Israel were carried off into captivity in Babylon they wondered how they could maintain their identity as worshipers of the one True God. They had no temple in Babylon. The laws of the land were pagan in their origin. But when the prophet Jeremiah brings a word from the Lord to them he gives them no excuse to despair. They are to “seek the peace” — the shalom, a wonderful Hebrew word that points us to the common good — of the city in which they are now living in exile, because their own shalom was linked to the shalom of the larger society. A similar command was given to the New Testament church: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).
We have new reasons these days to be reminded that we wait for the Lord’s return as “exiles.” But that is not a basis for retreat to the margins of our culture. To be sure, these are bad times. There is a new and overt hostility toward biblical Christianity. Sexual promiscuity is running rampant. Pagan beliefs and practices are increasingly visible. Superstition. Unbelief. Heresies abound.
All of that is so bad that it is much like the world into which the gospel first came. And it was in that world where the Lord announced at Pentecost he was pouring out his “Spirit on all people,” so that “sons and daughters will prophesy… And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:17, 21). The result was that the cause of the gospel flourished. And so it can also flourish, by God’s grace, in our own day.
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.